The Northwestern Sex Controversy

I’m reposting this by About.com’s Cory Silverberg on the recent “scandal” at Northwestern University involving a live performance on G-spot play and female ejaculation.  While I don’t agree on everything that’s being stated here, it’s a very insightful piece on Bailey’s portrayal and what is “sex positive.”  More to come later…

Thoughts on a Campus Dildo Controversy: Sexuality, Power, and Privilege

Northwestern University professor John Michael Bailey is worried about what people will say about his on campus sex toy demonstration where two people used a sex toy (called a “fucksaw”) as part of the after-class lecture series he curates.

So what’s the problem?

The particular reasons Bailey is worried expose his deeply problematic understanding of sexuality, power and privilege. It isn’t the first time Bailey has demonstrated a lack of understanding of these issues, and the impact they have on the lives of others (see Madeline Wyndzen’s critique of Bailey’s ill-conceived and poorly researched book, and Alice Dreger’s extensive and fascinating account of the controversy which followed it’s publication).

This time, let’s start with the statement that Bailey sent to the 600 students in his human sexuality class and read out loud during a class. In it, Bailey describes his own experience of being “silenced” because of his research, and suggests that he let the dildo demonstration happen because to do otherwise would be to give in to “sex negativity.” In response to his imagined critics who (if they were speaking up) might presumably say this kind of demonstration is harmful, he says this:

“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but watching naked people on stage doing pleasurable things will never hurt you.”

How could he, or anyone, say something like this? Well, being an essentialist helps. But if you live in this world and you care about other people and their experience then you know that context matters. There is NOTHING that you can say will never hurt someone. This statement is making a universal claim about sex, pleasure, and experience. You can’t do that because experience is always particular, always belongs to a person, a place, and a time. Our experience of something like watching two people on stage having sex is situated in other experiences of things like race, class, gender, embodiment, to name just a few. To be plain, I can think of lots of people who would experience what happened on stage as not only painful, but maybe even assaultive (it is worth noting that the “fucksaw” is actually a dildo attached to a reciprocating saw). Watching this demonstration might actually hurt someone. To suggest otherwise is to engage in a denial of others lived experience on an epic scale. Perhaps it’s true that Professor Bailey would never experience this as harmful. But the world is not actually made up of a billions of Professor Bailey’s.

This isn’t a reason to ban such demonstrations on college campuses. I’m not suggesting that should be the response to Bailey’s ridiculous statement. And I acknowledge that people might have chosen to leave the room before the demonstration had they thought it would be bad, dangerous, or unsafe for them to stay. But the idea that giving a warning means that everyone who stays has expressed their free and informed consent to be part of whatever comes next is a gross oversimplification of the very nature of consent and choice and, again, obliterates the context, in this case the subtle power dynamics of a college campus, not only as they relate to sex (in public and private) but also between professors and students. I’m not saying that on the one hand you’ve got consent and on the other coercion. Nor am I suggesting that professors (whoever they are) have ‘the power’ and students (whoever they are) have none. What I’m suggesting is that if Bailey had a more complicated understanding of power, privilege, and sexuality these kinds of events could be more thoughtful, educational, and safer for everyone. p>

In perfect PR fashion, Bailey has tried to “get out in front” of the controversy he anticipates by setting the terms of the debate, suggesting that he is sex positive and his detractors are motivated by only one thing: sex negativity.

He is suggesting that since it was pleasure on stage, everything must be okay, and anyone who suggests otherwise is engaging in censorship. But being sex positive doesn’t mean everything is okay all the time. Being sex positive, in part, includes acknowledging that sexuality is a site of both tremendous pleasure but also pain which is something that becomes apparent when you pay attention to experiences and their contexts. Sure being sex positive means supporting the inclusion of more voices into public and private discussions of sexuality. But giving those voices a stage is not enough: a million diverse voices on a stage isn’t a discussion–it’s a spectacle.

So being sex positive also means listening and having inclusive conversations (that other meaning of the word ‘intercourse’) By casting any opposition to his events as sex negative, Bailey is preempting a conversation and is certainly not listening to students who might disagree with his particular constructions of sexuality, sexual pleasure, and the most productive modes for thinking about them.

Which brings me to the last point I want to make. In his statement (and, one presumes, in his everyday teaching) Bailey is not only silencing his students or anyone who would critique his way of thinking, he is engaging in an erasure of modes of pleasure, the opposite of what one would hope from a human sexuality professor. How is he doing this? Let’s remember the context.

Bailey, we’re told, has won a lot of teaching awards. His class, we’re told, is very popular. Aside from the general power and privilege he experiences as someone read as white and male, he’s someone with particular power around discourses of sexuality on the Northwestern campus. And he’s inviting us lowly undergraduates to a special after class lecture where “real people’ tell us about what’s really happening with sex. He claims that he does this so students can see what sexual pleasure looks like. But what he’s actually doing is carefully curating a kind of token sexual identity freak show.

Here’s the sex offender (this is what a sex offender looks like!). Here’s a swinger (see the swingers swing!). I don’t mean to sound facetious but it’s a kind of dated and lazy understanding of sexuality and sexual pleasure which really has no place in human sexuality courses. There are other ways of talking about sexual pleasure and engaging students (who let’s not forget are “real people” themselves, perhaps with their own diverse experiences of sexual pleasure). Trotting out the panel of people to essentially be gawked at (as Eli Clare reminds us, gawking doesn’t only take place at a zoo or a formal freak show, it happens in everyday life) may be something that’s still commonly practiced among sex educators. But that doesn’t make it educational, useful, or right.

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  • Sonds

    Thanks for this perspective, Lucien. I was trying find/vocalize a balance between the worlds of sex-positivity and sex-negativity, and this post does a good job of straddling both (pun always intended). As much as I do agree with sex-positivity, and the decision that this was performed in response to the idea that the g-spot may or may not exist (female sex-negativity?), there is difference between introducing something for shock value (fucksaw? why not this: goo.gl/HIKni) vs. introducing pleasure as a complex and even intimate exchange – which can also be achieved in front of an audience. Overall, the “spectacle” actually may do harm than good in terms of promoting sex-positivity and the multiple, complex, and beautiful pursuits of that in the public sphere.

  • Sbcsbc60

    I read the word privilege and I'm instantly put off reading further as a woman, a feminist and actually, not an American. I wasn't there however to decide something was not actually ok just makes a mockery of the writer assuming sex positivity. Had this been a woman doing this what would have been the reaction? I doubt it would have been this.

  • Sbcsbc60

    I read the word privilege and I'm instantly put off reading further as a woman, a feminist and actually, not an American. I wasn't there however to decide something was not actually ok just makes a mockery of the writer assuming sex positivity. Had this been a woman doing this what would have been the reaction? I doubt it would have been this.